Young Aisha* has had more than her fair share of misfortunes. She was only six years old when the Boko Haram terror group levied war on the secular society in Nigeria. The ensuing carnage and bloodbath has taken the lives of over 30,000 people.
Originally from Goniri, a town in Yobe State, she was forced to move to Bama, about 60 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri in neighbouring Borno State. In September 2014, the insurgents laid siege on Bama and seized control from the army. Many soldiers and residents fled on foot. But others like Aisha were tired of running.
For six months, the town was in the hands of the terror group as an Islamic Caliphate. “Those in captivity are under serious trauma, starvation, in distress with serious degrees of injuries,” one resident reported in the early days of the occupation.
Despite her age, Aisha was married to a Boko Haram fighter called Mustafa. When the city was recaptured by the army in March 2015, she initially fled with her husband, brother, and sister, and they all hid in the forest camp. She then returned with her siblings to Bama where they were locked up and interrogated before they were taken to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). At the camp, they waited endlessly for food tickets but did not get any. They realised, after a few months, that there was only one way to survive: submitting to the sexual advances of camp officials.
“Since we did not have money to bribe, we were told to use what we have which is as good as money,” she narrated in Kanuri.
At night, a male camp official picked up young girls like Aisha who returned from the bush surrounding Bama and took them to tents occupied by soldiers and other security officials. This was usually at a roadblock in Tango. The next morning, they were given N1500 and returned to the IDP camp.
“I did not hear about it; it was done to me and at least two others that I know,” she thought she had to emphasise. “There is no way to cater to yourself here without surrendering to the sexual assaults of officials.”
Aisha is 17 now but was about four years younger when she first experienced these sexual assaults. Her age was a major source of her torment. The demons of sexual assaults in the camp were always attracted and therefore feasted on her like flies would feast on faeces.
It happened to her while she lived among the Boko Haram terrorists and persisted in the IDP camp. She recalls sleeping with over 20 soldiers as well as camp officials. Worse still, most of the sexual assaults were without protection. In her words, she always endured the trauma of “feeling the water (semen) coming out of the men”.
Frustrated, she eventually left the camp to find shelter in the town of Bama but was met with hostility. The residents labelled her and her friend “Boko Haram women,” a tag that accompanied her like a shadow everywhere she went. She was sent out of the rented house.
She was forced to return to the Dalori IDP camp, located in one of the neighborhoods close to Maiduguri. There too, she could not get food tickets. Her name was not registered and she had to resort again to trading her body for basic needs. But officials threw her out of the camp because she and her friends were seen as strangers from Bama.
When she left Dalori for Bama, she discovered her female friends had moved to Maiduguri. So, she joined them, moving in with Fatima,* whom she had made friends with since her first days at the Bama camp.
In her current location she still faces strong distrust from locals, but her resilience keeps her going. She is thankful that she could afford soap to wash her clothes, opportunities to be productive and, most importantly, a sense of control over her body.
Nigeria’s laws criminalise sex with minors. Enforcing the law however is like drawing water from the rock. Both the Criminal Code, which applies to the southern region, and the Penal Code, applicable in the north, outlaw sex with anyone below the age of 18 and stipulate punishment ranging from 14 years in prison or life imprisonment.
The Criminal Code and the Child Rights Act further state that it does not matter if the offender believed the child to be older or that “the girl was taken with her own consent or at her own suggestion.”
Attempts to get reactions from the Nigerian Army and Borno State government were not successful. Col. Sagir Musa, Director of Nigerian Army Public Relations, asked to be called back when HumAngle reached out to him on Thursday, September 17; but did not answer multiple calls since placed to his number. He also did not reply to texts sent in the period.
Calls to phone numbers belonging to Isa Gusau, spokesman to the Borno State governor, did not scale through, and he neither acknowledged nor replied texts and an email sent to his personal address.
Older IDPs as pimps
According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in June 2018, 54 per cent of IDPs in Nigeria are estimated to be female and as much as 56 per cent are below the age of 18. Another 37 per cent are between the ages of 18 and 59. But the fact that children constitute the vast majority of the displaced people has not given them special protection from exploitation.
Camp officials are not the only ones who sexually take advantage of displaced underage girls. The practise is also common among female IDPs who themselves are too old to trigger the fancy of male camp officials. Some of these older women engage in pimping the underage ones.
From interviews with multiple IDPs, HumAngle understands that the older women, known locally as magajiyas, offer up either their daughters or orphaned girls staying with them for the sex trade. The girls then return bearing foodstuff, money, and other supplies from which they benefit.
The IDPs who are separated from their parents in the process of fleeing from crossfire have no choice but to seek guardians in the camps. Others are separated from their husbands by the military who detain the men on grounds that they were being investigated.
Female IDPs are vulnerable not only in camps but across host communities in the Northeast as there are reports of abuse by people providing them with shelter in the towns. The ring of abusers draws up people with criminal cravings for underage girls, to those who have strong sexual appetites for older women as well as others with a homosexual orientation.
Most of the women who spoke with HumAngle said their first rape experience was at the point of interrogation by soldiers after they had just fled from their communities. The soldiers develop a body search protocol in which they compel the women to completely undress under their gaze.
In the course of this body search protocol several personal valuables are never returned to the owners. The younger ones among them are marked out by the soldiers for severe sexual bondage thereafter. The absurdity has been internalised among these women as an unavoidable reality of life.
At the IDP camps, what we have is not a growing case of rape but a growing case of consent and less and less sex without consent,” one of the women said. “It has become normal. If you are a lady, you cooperate and get what you want much more easily.”
The IDPs who escaped the interrogation with some money pay to get basic relief such as bed space, blankets, foodstuff, drugs and so on, donated in the first instance by local and international organisations.
Those without cash are forced to surrender themselves for sexual gratification. HumAngle learnt that some of the men who eventually regained their freedom from military detention centres returned to find that their wives had been variously impregnated by camp officials.
Pushed back to BH territories
Fatima, 16, who also hails from Goniri, had a similar string of experiences as Aisha. She had been married to a Boko Haram fighter, a young man from Bula Kuriye. When the Nigerian Army recaptured Bama in 2015, she fled to the bush with her mother. She later returned to the town with her younger brother to see her grandfather.
The grandfather was full of revulsion for her on account of her association with Boko Haram. He seized her sibling but rejected Fatima. “You Boko Haram people are spoilt. You are copying them. You and we cannot live in the same house,” she recalls her grandfather declaring.
Sometime in 2016, she went to the IDP camp hoping for a place she could find company. But what did she get? She was treated as a castaway. Every day, they wondered when they would finally get the food tickets. They complained to a male camp official, who kept assuring them their needs would be taken care of. The same official, they would later find out, worked as a pimp for security operatives.
“I will not deny; I went there once. He carried three of us in his car and took us there,” she recalled.
Like Aisha and the other girls, she received N1500 the following morning. The food tickets never came, possibly to keep them dependent. But rather than sleep with strangers every few days to stay alive, many of the girls chose to return to Boko Haram’s enclave. Fatima says there were initially over 30 IDPs from her village around, but only 12 remained.
“If you don’t have a food ticket, you would go back,” she said matter-of-factly. “What would you do? How would you eat? If you don’t have someone, how would you eat? This is my situation. Anyone who doesn’t want to submit to sexual assaults would have to go back (to their husbands in the forest).”
Some other female IDPs interviewed by HumAngle, who previously lived with the insurgents, expressed a desire to return. They said food scarcity is a problem they would face in the terrorist camps as well but, at least, no one except their husbands would attempt to have sexual intercourse with them.
Violated humanitarian laws
The right of children to be protected from abuse is not only guaranteed by local laws. The 1949 Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law, which have been ratified by Nigeria, have even broader provisions.
Article 77 of the convention’s Additional Protocol I states, “Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The Parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason.”
The treaty additionally guarantees the right of women to be protected “against rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault.” According to article 89, nursing mothers and children under the age of 15 are to be given additional food “in proportion to their physiological needs.”
Young IDPs, however, continue to face immense pressure in their bid to receive aid. A survey of IDPs in Borno conducted in December 2019 by Ground Truth Solutions, an international NGO, found that “younger respondents … are more convinced that they need to pay others or offer favours” before getting assistance.
The provision of food tickets is part of the cash support programme in place to improve the living conditions of IDPs. The displaced people are given Airtel SIM cards and identification cards from the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP). With the tickets, each person, including infants, especially in areas such as Dikwa and Bama, is entitled to three to four mudus (over 4 kg) of millets per month, one mudu of beans, and about a quarter of one litre of cooking oil.
The IDPs also receive salt and other items. But the food is barely enough as many of them oftentimes have to sell some of the supplies to buy firewood and other commodities needed for cooking.
A humanitarian worker informed HumAngle that for IDPs in Monguno, their thumbprints are recorded and they receive foodstuff worth N23,000 while IDPs in Dalori receive items worth N17,000. Those directly in charge of the distribution are, however, not workers of WFP. The UN agency employs the staff of other organisations such as the International Medical Corps (IMC) in Dalori and Kubuyo, and the Danish Refugee Council in Bama.
Ideally, new arrivals are registered alongside every member of their family, with their thumbprints recorded by the IOM. Those returning from the forest like Aisha and Fatima are supposed to be given cards from the detention centre in Bama before they are moved to camps.
“The NGO staff are saying the people are too many and registration is getting difficult,” the aid worker said in September.
“Like in Bama, they are in a difficult situation. Some of them were moving to Konduga as of yesterday. It came to the point where they cooked the millets and beans and ate the combination without stew. The scarcity is pushing women over the brink. For those who do not have skills to make a living, prostitution and begging become the only to survive.”
Increased monitoring needed
Weak monitoring mechanisms put in place by donor organisations and the government have been identified as a key reason sexual assault and pimping have continued at the various IDP camps.
Places such as Bama, Banki, and Monguno are considered unsafe for travel, and because of security concerns, top officials of international NGOs operating in the region are hardly physically present at the camps. Oftentimes, they instead delegate the distribution of materials to third party contractors who have been accused of being selective, exploitative, and fraudulent in their dealings.
In its 2018 report, They Betrayed Us: Women Who Survived Boko Haram Raped, Starved and Detained in Nigeria, Amnesty International (AI) reported patterns of rape and sexual exploitation in satellite camps. Some of the women said they were raped by soldiers or civilian Joint Task Force members at the Bama Hospital camp in late 2015 or early 2016 “while they had been starving or near starving.”
“The accounts given to Amnesty International from IDPs strongly indicate that much of the food assistance that reached these satellite camps were stolen, and in some cases sold back to them,” the organisation observed.
“They also indicate that there were inadequate efforts made by the civil authorities to monitor the distribution of aid and to ensure that the assistance they provided reached displaced people. According to the reports of displaced persons, in many of the satellite camps there appeared to have been little, if any, presence in the camp by government officials or emergency management agencies personnel, and thus no oversight or monitoring of whether aid reached its intended beneficiaries.”
The NGO requested that groups such as the UN missions and United Kingdom Team of Experts should support efforts to address the patterns of violence against displaced women and girls, especially by closely monitoring the camps and ensuring there is equity and fairness.
*A pseudonym has been used to protect her identity
This investigative news report is a partnership between HumAngle Media and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism under the media and terrorism programme.